The Temple of Heaven is round because the heaven is round, explained our guide. It’s also painted blue, but here in the 21st Century, the sky is pretty smog-laden, and a blue sky backdrop is a rarity rather than the norm.
Nevertheless, the weather Bruha (that would be me) was batting 1,000, and we got to see quite a bit of pale blue in the sky overhead during our visit. (We were told it is sometimes years without seeing blue sky in Beijing.)
The temp was in the low 90s, but there was enough shade and breeze that it was not too uncomfortable, despite the fact that sweat poured off me most of the day. I truly cannot describe this multi-tiered temple, kind of like an intricately-decorated layered cake I guess.
A well-known landmark, the Temple of Heaven is often the site of weddings and tourist promotional materials for China. We saw both of those things happening during our brief stop.
Our guide took us out the back way from the Temple, where we traveled a long length of covered walkway with many 90-degree turns. The walkway was wide, and had benches along each side. Groups of men and women sat on the benches, or pulled up folding chairs they brought from home, and played cards or a checkers-like board game.
At each big turn, a group of musicians or performers gathered, and delighted us with their songs and dances. But what an eclectic combination of sounds! First a group singing Eidelweis, a capella. Then a young gal in a belly-dancing gold coin belt moving her hips rhythmically to a CD playing (are you ready for this?) a Chinese rendition of Hey Macarina!
At the next corner, a multi-player group, maybe a high school band ensemble, struggled through something none of us knew, then we encountered an elderly guy, and I mean ELDERLY, playing something akin to a bag less bagpipe or a flute. I asked another tour guide what it was, and he said, “scheen”, or something like that…
Anyone is free to purchase yearly passes to the immaculate and serene Temple grounds, and it is clear that the locals take full advantage of it.
And I was grateful for this opportunity to “eavesdrop” on their daily lives.
We’d already had a pretty full day, what with Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City and the Silk Factory tour, and had worked up quite an appetite by midday, so we opted to eat our only “included dinner” at that time.
Our guide, a 12-year veteran of customizing his clients’ itineraries, suggested we enjoy our meal in “the original” Qianmen Quanjude Restaurant, which is in an older, more “authentic” building. Beijing Duck is now quite the tourist draw, and I spotted at least four restaurants specializing in that and only that on the inner city map. And although I usually avoid stairs, I loved our view from the second floor of this wonderful old building.
We knew we were having roast duck, but we left the ordering of the “sides” to our guide, who did a fabulous job of catering to all our preferences. For me, he made sure there was no soy in anything, so I was free to indulge in all the tasting plates set on the table without fear of poisoning myself. (The others were free to add soy sauce to whichever foods they wanted.)
The chef—or at least the guy wearing the tall, white, chef hat, brought a cart right to our table and carved our bird there. Our guide knows everyone, so he got a bag full of duck carcasses to take home to make soup. I suspect there were plenty of good pieces in the bag, too, and I don’t begrudge him that bonus in the least. We definitely had plenty to eat!
For starters, we got to sample the roast duck skin. Our guide showed us how to gently tap it into a little tray of sugar before popping it into our mouths. The sweet, slightly salty, and crunchy texture was addicting, and we emptied that “appetizer” tray rather quickly.
Then the duck dishes just kept coming—much more than the meat of the one solitary duck we saw carved. One had been roasted with cumin, another in a kind of BBQ brine. There was sweet and sour duck, and thin slices to wrap in tortilla-like see-through thin pastry, along with green onions, bok choy, and so forth. Each of us had a different “favorite” preparation.
We also had a plate of fruit, roasted chestnuts, and some phyllo dough pastry cookie thing for dessert. We very nearly cleaned the whole table of food, and were more than satisfied by this experience when our meal was finished.
And now I am among the few who can honestly say they’ve eaten Beijing Duck… IN BEIJING!!
We were shown the stages of a silk worm’s life, the intricate unwinding of the cocoons, and the massive looms. Then we were hustled into the “Sales Room” and “encouraged” to purchase everything from silken quilt interiors and embroidered coverlets to designed rugs, patterned scarves, intricate wall hangings and story-telling scrolls.
There was a very beautifully designed rug, about 4’ x 3’ that particularly caught my eye. I examined it carefully, in several different colors. I was quite taken with the darker red one that had two mirror-image gold and green phoenix/dragons. The border had the Chinese symbols for long life and double happiness.
There was no price tag on the rug, so I asked the sales clerk. She answered in RMBs. I did the math myself (divide by 6) then asked them to tell me in dollars how much it cost, and their number and mine matched. But I felt $80 was a lot for me to spend on one item, so I walked away.
They gently folded it to fit my suitcase, and whisked away my debit card. When they completed wrapping my purchase to withstand the luggage handlers, I asked, “Don’t I need to sign the slip?” and they said no. And right then and there I blew it by not immediately checking the receipt.
And since the Internet “wifi” looks like it’s connected while the wheel just spins and spins, I couldn’t check my bank account until we got back to Seoul, and by then it was too late. I was charged almost TEN TIMES the amount I should have been charged.
The credit union said my card was “in hand” when the purchase was made, so it’s not fraud. I wrote an email to our guide, explaining the situation, and he told me the factory said they charged me the right price for my “ silk art.” He said I could mail the rug back for a refund, but I worried I would end up with nothing, so I did not mail it back.
I still haven’t hung my “art” on the wall, and I have to keep it safely tucked away so the cats don’t decide to use it for a scratching post. For the price I paid, I need to find a way to hang it without punching holes in it.
The Forbidden City is one huge maze of look-alike buildings with no trees, no grass, nothing of nature to distract the intention of focusing on the emperor being the Son of God. That’s how Peter explained it.
Until 1911, the end of the dynasties, no one but the emperor, his eunuchs, and up to 3,000 concubines (per emperor) had ever been inside. It was a place where much “policy” was made, and the interior goings on, with governmental advising eunuchs, cloaked in secrecy.
Nowadays (since a terrorist bombing in 2011), you need a ticket and your passport to get in, and you may only enter through one gate and leave through another designated gate, no going back in. Our guide cut through the long lines and we gained access rather quickly.
For some reason, I wasn’t much “impressed” with this rather barren place. I did, however, buy a book from a vendor on the street to read all about it at a “later” time. Perhaps that will give me the insights I missed. Usually, I learn the other way around—read first, then experience first hand, and ask a lot of clarification questions.
Nevertheless, I was glad we went!
Square, my stomach felt as uneasy and unsettled as when I watched the news a full 26 years ago.
This was the only morning the smog was a factor on our trip, and I felt its presence an almost necessary complement to my emotional reaction to standing there. The air was heavy, oppressive, restricting, and created an additional component to my feelings of solemnity.
At one end of the square is Mao Zedong’s tomb. Beyond the street at the other end is the gigantic painting (redone yearly, to preserve it in the smog) of his likeness. Although most “outsiders” concur that classic Maoism had failed (contributing to thousands of people dying of starvation), his presence is still very much a part of the Chinese culture.
In China, both Google (and consequently gmail) and Facebook are restricted (as in banned). The Internet connections are slow and monitored. When I did manage to log on, I felt the eerie feeling that someone was watching.
What price, democracy? What price, freedom of speech?
Before we took the underpass to leave the Square and continue to The Forbidden City, I asked our guide to “give me one minute.” I stood at the end of the square and with tears literally running down my cheeks and allowed myself to “feel my feelings.”
Years ago, I stood on the Lexington Common, in Massachusetts. There’s a rock there with engraving on it, attributed to (colonial farmer) Captain John Parker in 1775. It says, “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
Through my travels, I have a much better understanding of this communist society. And although I hope my prayer comes true, I also know this Square may someday be in the world news again as a focal point for change. I just hope the changes will take place peacefully.
This day, more so than most, I was overcome by gratitude that I was lucky enough to have been born in the United States of America.